If you enjoy finding interesting pieces of American culture during road trips you may have wondered about the location of the first McDonald’s restaurant. The global and multi-billion dollar fast food chain began rather modestly in the town of San Bernardino, California. The McDonald brothers, Richard and Maurice operated a small barbecue, car-hop restaurant in a business district along Route 66. Nearly eight years later, they decided to change their menu and focus on speedy service. It was then that McDonald’s was truly born.
If they were still alive, neither Richard or Maurice would recognize the neighborhood where they started their business. Sadly, much of San Bernardino has deteriorated to the point where I wouldn’t suggest driving through on your own and certainly not after dark. Thankfully, the original McDonald’s location is not too far from the freeway and I didn’t have much trouble finding it. I also arrived around 10:00 in the morning on a Thursday, when not much was going on.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive is the large McDonald’s sign and a vintage playground set in the shape of a hamburger. (I remember these from when I was a kid!) You’ll also find some pretty nice murals on the exterior of the building including one of the brothers themselves. Don’t miss a display of the Hamburglar, a popular McDonald’s mascot from the 80’s, locked in a small jail cell.
Inside the building you’ll find an insane amount of collectibles and toys from all over the world. The on-site docent referred to the museum as “the place where everyone sends their junk.” While it’s certainly true that a large portion of the building looks the garage sale of a toy collector, it’s still fascinating. If you grew up in the era where McDonald’s was where your friends had their birthday parties, or your kids earned Happy Meals for good grades or doing their chores – you’ll enjoy a trip down memory lane seeing a lot of this stuff.
The most interesting portion of the museum features artifacts like logos and photographs from the early days of McDonald’s as well as some of the original equipment used on-site. Whether it’s a deep fryer or paper bags used to pack hamburgers, it’s cool to see that someone was wise enough to hold on to these items. The McDonald’s corporation mostly ignores the restaurant’s history prior to Ray Kroc. In fact, it’s assumed that McDonald’s doesn’t even want there to be a museum here at all. (The Original McDonald’s Museum is privately owned and operated and is in no way affiliated with the corporation.) As you tour the museum, your guide may clue you in on the legal minutia that separates the two parties and how they were able to open in the first place. When Kroc bought out the brothers, the original restaurant was not included in the deal. Kroc, so furious, opened a new McDonald’s location a block away and put this location out of business.
It’s worth noting that the oldest McDonald’s still in operation is located in Downey, California – about 60 miles southwest of the museum. This was the third and only remaining franchise operated solely by the McDonald brothers. Ray Croc’s first franchised location was in Des Plaines, Illinois and is no longer standing.
Admission to the Original McDonald’s Museum is free although donations are accepted. They also sell merchandise on-site. The building is owned by a local businessman who operates Juan Pollo, a fast food restaurant chain in the region.
The address is: 1398 North E. Street, San Bernardino, CA 92405. Operating hours are 10am-5pm.
The McDonald brothers and the original restaurant location are profiled in my book, Finding The American Dream – A Guided Tour of Places Where Americans Changed History.